In this turbulent moment, a lot of us — myself included — are feeling fear, anxiety and grief. And a lot of us, I suspect, could use some help managing those difficult emotions and thoughts. I had been wanting to talk to someone who could answer that question with practicality and steadying wisdom, so I got in touch with Jack Kornfield, whose work has offered that to me and a great many others over the years. A clinical psychologist and author whose books have sold over a million copies, Kornfield is one of America’s true mindfulness pioneers, a man who helped popularize the once-exotic practices he learned more than 50 years ago when he began training as a Buddhist monk. “Epidemics are a part of the cycle of life on this planet,” Kornfield said. “The choice is how we respond. With greed and hatred and fear and ignorance? Or with generosity, clarity, steadiness and love?”
People reading this might be scared of contracting Covid-19 themselves, or fear that someone they love might contract it. Is there something, even small, that you can share that can help us all feel a little steadier? What’s needed in a time like this, David, are ways to steady the heart, which is the essence of your question. The first step is acknowledgment and the willingness to be present. You could almost whisper to yourself, “Sadness, fear, anxiety, grief, longing,” as if to bow to that feeling and hold it with respect. That allows the feeling to open — maybe even intensify for a bit — but eventually to soften. The next step is to bring in a sense of compassion for all the fears and confusion and helplessness. These feelings are all part of the fight-flight-or-freeze instinct in the body and the mind. If I make space for the feelings and they have time to be felt, it’s as if my awareness gets bigger and I can hold all of this with greater ease and compassion and presence and steadiness.
But what you described sounds like something you would do alone before going to bed or something. What about those times during the day when, I don’t know, you’ve been reading scary things about coronavirus-death projection, and your kids are going stir-crazy from quarantining, and you feel that all your stress is about to bubble over? We don’t always have the luxury of dealing with anxiety in some period of quiet reflection. I love the line from the Japanese Zen poet
He wrote: “Last year, a foolish monk. This year, no change.” So the first thing is to acknowledge that this is just our humanity. Your feelings are your organism trying to handle things. The second thing is what you teach kids: Take a pause. You don’t have to sit and do some formal meditation. In that moment when you’re about to snap, take a breath, turn away. Bring that quality of loving awareness, and name the feeling gently — upset, worried, frightened or whatever it might be — and then, almost as if you could put your hand on your heart, say: “Thank you for trying to protect me. I’m OK.” That can take 10 seconds, and it allows us to reset our consciousness. All the good neuroscience on trauma and its release is based on this kind of caring attention.
Should we be trying to find some equilibrium between our feelings and other people’s? It can be hard when other people — parents or friends, say — aren’t taking the pandemic as seriously as we want them to. And on the flip side, it’s hard to know how to respond if someone you care about is more anxious than you are. You don’t want to diminish what they’re going through, but you also can’t feel something you’re not feeling. Let’s get real, baby. You have enough trouble managing your own damn feelings, and now you want to manage the feelings of others? The real answer is to acknowledge that you’ll have cycles where you’ll get lost in anxiety or fear — and by the time this article comes out, I think we’re going to be dealing more with grief than with fear. But what you can tend is yourself. You can breathe a bit and acknowledge what you’re feeling and what your judgment of others is: “I wish they weren’t so anxious” or “I wish they weren’t so blasé.” And you can feel all that with some kindness and say, “I’m just trying to protect myself and others the best I can, and they are doing the best they can.”
Very few people’s lives are going to be untouched in some way by death after all this is done. How are you counseling people in that regard? It all seems so unexpected and senseless. I’m not counseling people in any particular way. Some grieve by expressing it in wildly powerful ways, and some grieve more quietly. I’ve come to respect that grief knows its own way, and we have to honor that. But what I’m saying to you is, by the time this article comes out, there will be people we know who’ve died. There will be people we know in the hospital. We’ll be holding all of that in our hearts, and it will come in its own way as grief. So I’m counseling people on holding their humanity and emotions with compassion. There’ll be sadness and tears, all those feelings. And when I allow myself to quiet and feel them and say, “All right, show yourself to me,” then they do open. You’re not trying to fix them. You hold them, and gradually they display and settle, and you feel well-being or steadiness. That’s the first thing to say.